Peter May Weighs In

May 7, 1997

If Rick Pitino was at all misty-eyed about saying goodbye to Kentucky, wait till he sees the Celtics' payroll. Then he'll really have cause for a good cry.

The new coach of the Celtics talked endlessly yesterday about challenges, and boy, does he have one in Boston. On the plus side, he has Antoine Walker, Eric Williams, and two upcoming lottery picks. That's about it.

Pitino, of course, knows all this. He didn't sign on without knowing all the pluses and minuses. Yes, he has charisma, energy, enthusiasm, oodles of coaching experience, a track record of making something out of nothing, and considerable motivational skills.

He also has Pervis Ellison for three more years.

Pitino talked yesterday about the NBA being a players' league, about the need to have good players, because without them, you can coach your you-know-what off to no avail. Did you realize the sainted Phil Jackson was barely a .500 coach in his final two years in Albany in the CBA? Or that Larry Brown, with no David Robinson, won 21 games in his first year in San Antonio?

The team Pitino inherits has seven players who account for 80 percent of the available cap money for next season. None of those seven is to be confused with Kevin McHale or possibly even Kevin Duckworth. They are Dana Barros, Dee Brown, Ellison, Greg Minor, Dino Radja, Walker, and Williams.

Not only that, but five of those players - not Williams and Walker - have at least three years left on their contracts. In other words, Pitino is stuck with them unless he can move them, something M.L. Carr was unable or unwilling to do.

Radja, for example, is the proverbial square peg in a round hole in a Pitino system, but he has three years left at $ 5.3 million a season. Ellison is on for another $ 7 million plus over three years. Minor has four years and more than $ 11 million, Barros four years and more than $ 14 million.

The remaining 20 percent of available cap space will be eaten up in a hurry by the two lottery picks, who together could account for $ 3.5 million of the $ 5 million, and by any re-signings, such as Rick Fox or David Wesley. The Celtics may have the $ 1 million exception available to them this season, but $ 1 million doesn't go very far in today's NBA.

The reality is no different for Pitino than it was for Carr, although we suspect Pitino would describe it as daunting and challenging, maybe even frustrating, in a candid minute. If the Celtics do not re-sign Fox or Wesley, allow every other free agent to go (Marty Conlon and Todd Day are the main ones), are unable to move one of the Magnificent Seven for a draft pick, and fill the rest of the roster with minimum-wagers, Pitino still will have only $ 1.5 million to spend.

The situation doesn't get any easier the following year. Williams will be up for renewal. Walker is eligible to reup at the same time. The cycle continues with the draft picks from this year in 1998 and 1999. It's a good thing they gave him 10 years. He may need every one of them.

Unlike the NFL, the NBA is a league of guaranteed contracts. Pitino can, of course, cut Radja, Ellison, or anyone he so chooses. But while the player may leave, his contract remains on the Celtics' cap for the duration unless another team has cap room and absorbs the salary by claiming the player off waivers. That is highly, highly unlikely.

Every year the Celtics say there is interest in all of the above players. But they don't pull the trigger. Pitino should have no such worries. No one will begrudge him for paring the roster any way he can, even if it's to free up cap money in the year 2003.

And that is what he probably will have to do. He noted yesterday, "These guys are going to play defense like it's never been played before." And we don't know if he's ever seen Radja try to defend a pick-and-roll. This year's team virtually ignored the entire concept. You can be sure next year's team, whatever its composition, will not do the same.

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